We in­ter­view the man in charge of NASA’S Traf­fic Man­age­ment Sys­tem

Electric Flight - - CONTENTS - By De­bra Cleghorn

Air Traf­fic Con­trol for Drones

Within the next few years, mil­lions of drones may be reg­u­larly fly­ing over U.S. skies, and the Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, bet­ter known as NASA, is work­ing with the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FAA) and in­dus­try part­ners on de­vel­op­ing a sys­tem for man­ag­ing drone air traf­fic. We re­cently spoke with NASA’S Pari­mal Kopardekar, PH.D., man­ager of the Safe Au­ton­o­mous Sys­tem Op­er­a­tions Project and prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor of Un­manned Aerial Sys­tems (UAS) Traf­fic Man­age­ment at NASA’S Ames Re­search Cen­ter in Sil­i­con Val­ley. This NASA team has cre­ated a UAS Traf­fic Man­age­ment (UTM) sys­tem, aimed at drones that are 55 pounds and un­der, that will al­low in­creased ef­fi­ciency, safety, and ca­pac­ity in U.S. skies.

Elec­tric Flight: Can you tell us more about the NASA UTM and how it works?

Pari­mal Kopardekar: Sure. The first side of the piece is the FAA Flight Man­age­ment Sys­tem, [where] the FAA can put out any di­rec­tives or con­straints—for ex­am­ple, [where] there is a blocked-off airspace or any­thing that goes on that needs to be un­der­stood and fol­lowed by all airspace op­er­a­tors. The sec­ond piece is op­er­a­tor-to-op­er­a­tor in­ter­ac­tion. Once you and I want to op­er­ate in the airspace, we know what airspace to avoid be­cause the FAA says, “Avoid that.” Then we say, “OK, I want to plan my area of op­er­a­tion for search and res­cue,” and you’re do­ing de­liv­er­ies, so you’re go­ing to have straight-line flight. We [both send our in­for­ma­tion to] the FAA sys­tem, and be­cause we’re op­er­at­ing in the same airspace, the UTM al­lows us to in­ter­act with each other and share in­for­ma­tion about our other in­tent. If some­one else is out there in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion and our paths don’t criss­cross, then we don’t have to worry about them. So once we do a dis­cov­ery to see who is nearby, we con­nect with each other via a peer-to-peer ex­change and you track your own ve­hi­cle, I track my ve­hi­cle, and if there is a sit­u­a­tion where your ve­hi­cle goes be­yond the planned area of op­er­a­tion and my ve­hi­cle is cre­at­ing a prob­lem for you, the UTM will au­to­mat­i­cally send an alert so [that] you will be care­ful, like de­fen­sive driv­ing. The main idea of UTM is co­op­er­at­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment where you share and care about and stay away from each other. With the UTM, we have full tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity lev­els. Be­cause of the com­plex­ity, we are go­ing through a risk-based ap­proach. The first ca­pa­bil­ity level [we tested two years ago] was just fo­cused on very re­mote ar­eas where there are no other ve­hi­cles in the airspace, and we fig­ured out how to in­ter­act with each other through elec­tronic or dig­i­tal means. Last year, we [tested] be­yond line of sight ca­pa­bil­ity with track­ing op­tions. The third ca­pa­bil­ity that is be­ing tested right now will fig­ure out het­ero­ge­neous op­er­a­tions and ve­hi­cle in­ter­ac­tions. The next tests cen­ter on [what hap­pens when] you plan your airspace op­er­a­tions but then you get too close to each other be­cause of un­cer­tain­ties [like] wind. What do you do about it, and how do you use in­for­ma­tion about each other’s lo­ca­tion and tac­ti­cally stay away from each other? In 2019, we will be test­ing ur­ban op­er­a­tions and what hap­pens when there is no GPS, or you don’t have pre­cise lo­ca­tions, or you can’t track your­self very well. Ur­ban airspace has a lot of risks—build­ings, trees, other ve­hi­cles, manned avi­a­tion—so you have to take all of that into ac­count. What’s in­ter­est­ing about that is that we have a very good re­la­tion­ship with the FAA, and they are de­ploy­ing things as we find ma­tu­rity in our con­cepts. [For ex­am­ple,] FAA has taken our authen­ti­ca­tion au­tho­riza­tion [con­cept] and built a “Low Al­ti­tude Au­tho­riza­tion and No­ti­fi­ca­tion Ca­pa­bil­ity” that they have al­ready de­ployed. So the FAA is not wait­ing for all of the re­search to be done; as bits and pieces are avail­able and ma­ture, they are tak­ing those things on and im­ple­ment­ing them. You have a very ex­cit­ing job. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun! Edi­tor’s note: This in­ter­view has been edited and con­densed.

That’s im­pres­sive. When do you an­tic­i­pate this sys­tem might be up and running and drones will be de­liv­er­ing pack­ages? The fixed-wing Pre­ci­sion­hawk Lan­caster 5 be­ing launched dur­ing the TCL2 de­mon­stra­tion at Renos­tead Air­port, Oc­to­ber 2016. (Photo cour­tesy of NASA Ames/do­minic Hart)

The con­cept of ur­ban air mo­bil­ity in­volves mul­ti­ple air­craft safely op­er­at­ing within a city.

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